Lessons from Singapore’s political economy

Marina Bay Financial Centre, Singapore

Marina Bay Financial Centre, Singapore

In his excellent TED talk, renowned inequality researcher Richard Wilkinson showed that of all OECD countries, Singapore had the worst inequality, ahead of Portugal, US, New Zealand, UK. Gini coefficients are the standard measure of income inequality. A score of 1 is the worst and 0 is the best. Because it is taken on the average not the median income, extremes of wealth will raise it.

I had always believed that Singapore was a model where there was little poverty and not much inequality. It is commonly cited as one of the more ‘georgist’ places in the world in terms of them shifting burdens on land, socialising its value and untaxing labour and capital.

But there are myths about the “Singaporean miracle”. In the absence of any constraint on the movement of global capital, any billionaire can set up residence and tap into the low tax regime. And they do. High net individuals and multinational corporations hide their wealth there. The tax benefits include a 20% top income tax, and a 17% top company tax. Even New Zealand has a billionaire living there – Richard Chandler.

We have insisted that both the land issue and money issue need to be addressed together, not separately, and Singapore is a clear example of what happens when you do one but not the other. The late Adrian Wrigley of the Systemic Fiscal Reform in Cambridge said, ‘If we just have resource taxes including land tax, where people pay for the privilege of monopolising their part of the commons, but have no monetary reform then money will concentrate with banks. Banks will row the economy between easy money and tight money causing booms and busts. They will put up interest rates for ‘riskier’ loans. They buy patents, radio spectrums, copyrights and trademarks.’ They bribe governments.

Whether Singapore, a country of 5.5 million, has done all this I don’t know, but it is a low tax regime and it certainly featured in the Panama Papers. It has even been labelled as a tax haven. For example, companies like TrustNet, now headquartered in Singapore, has branch offices in 16 other locations. It describes itself as a ‘one-stop shop,’ employing lawyers and accountants who help “high net worth” clients manage their money and business activities. The main product it sells is secrecy. It is easy to set up a company because only one shareholder and one director is needed. There is no need to disclose the beneficial owners of Singapore corporations to the authorities. Hopefully the international crackdown on tax sheltering will do something to change it, but given the nature of the tax regime in most countries, I can’t see much hope. They haven’t yet understood it is better to rely on land as a source of income, as land will not get up and walk away.

Big Australian mining companies have large workforces in Singapore. BHP has more staff there than its Melbourne headquarters. There are about 600 employees and 400 contractors in Singapore. Apart from being a marketing hub, it also has its business information systems based there. Rio Tinto employs more than 300 staff in Singapore. Companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto have all admitted in hearings as part of the Senate inquiry into corporate tax avoidance that they are under audit by the ATO for their use of Singapore ‘marketing’ and ‘service’ hubs, where they route hundreds of millions of dollars of income.

So I wonder about Singapore. Could it be a perfect example of what Adrian warned? While 90% of the land is now government owned, the banks have too much power.

Singapore is not just banking hub, it is shadow banking hub. There are about 125 commercial banks in Singapore, only five of which are local. Although banks lend a lot of money into existence in Singapore and their loans go towards construction of capital, rather than simply bidding up the price of land (as we see in Auckland, for example), that is not all that banks do. They sell derivative contracts over the counter – bets on interest rates or other securities. Derivatives leverage up money creation up to 100 or more times. Trading in derivatives contracts happens round the clock. Singapore is a leading global commodities hub with 14,000 people employed and annual turnover of some US $1 trillion in the commodities sector.

The majority of people who live there find Singapore is an extremely attractive place to live and operate from. It is safe, clean, and green with superb infrastructure. The unemployment rate in Singapore is just 1.9% (June 2016), down from 6% in 1986. Bear in mind though, the definition ‘employed’ includes those employed part time, probably as little as an hour a week.

Unlike New Zealand they don’t have a Universal Superannuation. Many of Singapore’s elderly didn’t save enough while working, but they live longer. Some were born when there was no access to education. What’s more, the Singapore language policy marginalised many of them only able to speak languages other than Mandarin and English. While the cultural norm of caring for the elderly seems to have almost vanished, the government still argues that children should take care of their parents. Many elderly are on the government allowance of $450 a month, reliant on charity for food and health care. Living in tiny apartments as small as 30 square metres, they clean tables at hawker centres, collect cardboard for money, scrub apartment blocks or slog in the hot sun as security guards. Security guards and cleaners are among the worst paid.

In response, there is now a plethora of government assistance, making for growing administrative costs of welfare, when it would have been so much better to have shared their land rents with all their citizens in the first place.

So Singapore can only stop its own rent from being stolen by the global elite; it can't stop the global elite from setting up shop there and stealing the rent of other places. Local rent-sharing can only raise the local floor. But Singapore doesn’t do enough rent-sharing, hasn’t controlled its banking industry and doesn’t exist in isolation from the global capitalist economy. Hence its inequality.

So maybe we’ve seen only part of the equation. Taking land into public ownership stops private landowners from pocketing land rent, but it doesn't restore the universal individual right to share the land value. The Singapore government has built great infrastructure and housed almost all its people, but it could easily share the remaining public money with its citizens. The Citizens Dividend enables everyone to collect rent, rather than just landowners. But without democratising the budgeting process, ordinary people are not receiving their fair share.

Singapore has the highest per capita of millionaires of any country. One in six households are millionaire households. The mobility of capital and people across borders means that the borders of the country are constantly being crossed. So it is no good just having one country in the world with land owned by the government while billions of dollars slosh around the globe every hour.

Billionaires can sit in Singapore and draw rent from land in the rest of the world. Aetas Global Markets provides funds for commodities projects. Many international firms are sited in Singapore. Global Capital firms like Knight Frank invest on behalf of what they call Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (UHNWI) in property round the world. Genesis Global Capital appears to choose cities in the early stage of a property boom in Brazil and Germany. The Strait Times reports in March 2016 that the financial services sector is a key driver of Singapore’s growth.

Henry George defined poverty as the ‘fear of want’, the ‘relentless hell waiting beneath civilized society’. He believed that removing this fear would not only help the poor, but transform our culture and society.

Former Singapore resident Zbigniew Dumienski said, ‘The only group that I would consider as poor are the old people with no children. When they worked they didn't have to contribute towards any retirement scheme (CPF) and might not have accumulated enough money to enjoy a peaceful retirement. This is why you often see old people selling tissues or cleaning tables in Singapore. They do receive some support from the state though, plus many of them own their apartments. In fact, I've met income-poor people who would choose to live in a tent/on the streets so that they can live off renting their apartment to other people.’

The situation of the 870,000 foreign workers (Feb 2016) in Singapore is contentious. Many immigrants like the safety and enjoy the food. While it is good if your employer is fair, it is not so good if you are exploited. There are construction workers from India, Bangladesh, China and Nepal and maids from the Philippines, Myanmar and Indonesia who earn much less than an average Singaporean. Some live in dormitory ghettos provided by the government. Migrant workers are not given basic protections such as a minimum wage, standardised working hours and a right to unionise, so this puts a downward pressure on wages, raising inequality. There are reports of maids being ripped off by recruiters, and sometimes being beaten or raped. Live-in nannies are often on 24/7 standby and earn $5 an hour. If they have their passports stolen by their employers they can’t go home. However many eventually earn enough to take back home and live a life with more choices. With 40% of Singapore's inhabitants being foreigners by 2013, immigration is increasingly becoming a big political issue.

So despite the hope of eliminating poverty, the ugly side of global capitalism is becoming increasingly apparent.

The Tree issue in Titirangi is an example of why land should move to public ownership

11358921The architects who own the two Titirangi sections with the precious kauri and rimu trees on them should have their land bought by the Local Board and the rent should be reduced because of the restrictions they suffer in building, according to the New Economics Party.

Spokesperson Deirdre Kent said the tree issue in Titirangi is a graphic example of why land ownership should progressively move into public ownership. Local Boards should have power to create a second national currency to buy up community land. And if the use of the land is restricted because of historic building, conservation of trees or building height limits, the rent should be reduced as the part of the land already serves a public purpose.

The land rent should be in lieu of rates and the revenue shared by other levels of government.
She said if the Auckland Council (preferably the Local Board if it had the power) buys this land destined for low cost housing there will be four beneficial outcomes:
1. The trees can be saved
2. the housing produced will be genuinely low cost because the cost of the land will not be included into the cost of the housing
3. the citizens Auckland will enjoy a dividend from the land rental in perpetuity
4. The citizens of New Zealand will enjoy a more bouyant economy as lower cost of housing results in lower mortgage payments therefore less interest payments and less bank profits streaming across the Tasman to Australia.
“The financing of land purchase on a large scale is eminently possible. It is only political will that is needed to create a second national currency that can be spent into existence through land purchase by councils,” said Ms Kent

For further comment phone Deirdre Kent 06 364 7779 or 021 728 852

Land enclosures in England took centuries

UnknownAndro Linklater’s book Owning the Earth – the Transforming History of Land Ownership is a fascinating chronicle in the history of civilisation.

If you think that land speculation is something modern contemplate this: Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s lord chancellor was big speculator. Here is Andro Linklater on the topic:
“In three frenzied years, from 1537 to 1539, he bought almost twenty properties in the southeast of England at a cost of £38,000, then sold most of them again for a total profit of more than £4000…..

But the profit to be made from the rising price of land was irresistible. When the mighty abbey of Tewksbury lost its lands near the south coast, a wealthy London cloth merchant, Sir Robert Palmer, bought three of its manors in 1540 for £1255, and immediately cleared off the villeins and cottagers. Then he turned on the tenants, harassing them and even breaking into their homes.”

Jump two centuries forward and the enclosures are well advanced. He writes “The rising price of land triggered a new surge in enclosure. Much of England’s farmland had continued to be cultivated as ‘open fields’ with some common rights of pasturing livestock, and almost a quarter remained communally owned and used. It was a measure of the landowners’ influence in Parliament that more than four thousand ‘Inclosure acts’ were passed between 1700 and 1830, allowing their promoters to hedge and fence in most of this land as private, exclusive property….. Altogether some seven million acres were transferred into private ownership through the enclosure orders, brutal testimony to the political power now wielded by landowners. In many cases compensation was paid, but the total value of enclosed land represented the transfer of about £175million of assets from communal possession to the lawyers, merchants and wealthy landowners who controlled Parliament.”

Why did landowners want to enclose their property? Because they ran sheep and when the sheep were confined to one area bounded by hedges or ditches or stone walls, they manured the soil. The word ‘manure’ also meant ‘improve’. Their land was then more productive.

So let’s go back to 1485 and follow it through.

1485 Henry V11 first year on the throne
1489 The land revolution was well underway. Henry legislated to stop engrossment
1536 Pilgrimage of Grace opposes enclosures
1549 Robert Kett’s rebellion against enclosures. None statutes and 3 government commissions designed to prevent ploughland being turned into pasture and highways being thronged with homeless who were dispossessed of their land.

1517-1537 fines or imprisonment for those who enclosed land including 264 peers, bishops and knights.
1533 Inheritance issue. Struggle was won by the landowners and Henry V111 found that he was short of taxes.

A dual currency for New Zealand (Starve the Banks and Pay the Government)

We are in a depression. Yes the first stages of one and of course politicians will not name it as that until we are well into it. Good thinking emerges from depressions. In the 1870s depression Henry George figured out that since we can't all occupy the same land, those who have monopoly use of the best land should compensate the rest of us for the privilege. The way to do that was not for government to own the title to the land, but for land occupiers to pay a tax or rental to government instead of income tax. He wrote Land and Poverty. In the 1880s depression Silvio Gesell, a German businessman working in Argentina, noticed that those with goods were at a disadvantage compared with those with money. Since money gained in value from being withheld, it stopped money circulating. He therefore advocated that money should decay like goods and be as disagreeable as goods. He wrote The Natural Economic Order and sparked a movement which lasted. In the 1930s John Maynard Keynes worked out that governments should spend money into existence to stimulate an economy, including on infrastructure. During the last two decades Bernard Lietaer has observed that situation where governments issue one monopoly currency can't help but lead to sovereign debt crises, monetary crises and inflation crises. Like the late Richard Douthwaite, he advocates an ecology of currencies for resilience. Search on youtube for his presentations. In the proposal presented in the following slide show, with inspiration from Adrian Wrigley of UK, I have put together all these ideas. http://www.slideshare.net/deirdrekent/starve-the-banks-and-pay-the-government-13876092. I recommend you take the time to look at it. This idea continues to develop as I run it past our supporters and others. I expect it will develop and clarify further yet. Please respond! And the actual paper is now at http://neweconomics.net.nz/index.php/2012/08/proposal-for-a-dual-currency-for-new-zealand-one-for-domestic-use-only/